How a Land Acknowledgment Can Correct Stereotypes of American History

Here’s how to properly recognize Indigenous people and the land we’ve stewarded for millennia.

On a recent warm day I biked along the Chicago River. Migrating songbirds sang in the trees, Black-crowned Night-herons fished the site of a recently removed dam, and waterfowl negotiated territory as humans passed by. Taking it all in, I said to myself, “neewe šikaakwa siipiiwi—thank you, Chicago River, for being here.” It was a nearly automatic response: In moments of joy, I instinctively reflect on the relationship between my tribe, birds, the land, and our interconnected history in what is now called Chicago.

I live in Chicago and am a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, one of many tribes which call Chicago and the surrounding lands home. As I walk through my city I often think about my ancestors. Around 175 years ago the United States forcibly removed us from our homelands around the southern Great Lakes and sent us on canal boats to Kansas and, ultimately, Oklahoma. However many Chicagoans don’t know our history. That’s because America’s mythology depends on our omission.

The idea of manifest destiny, taught in U.S. history classes, describes the land as empty and ripe for European colonists’ taking—even though Indigenous people were here already and were often forcibly removed from their homelands by those same colonists. America was a Garden of Eden supposedly with no gardeners to speak of, or so the story goes. In reality Indigenous peoples have stewarded this landscape for millennia. Without deliberate action to correct these ideas, they are baked into America’s shared knowledge, culture, and institutions.

Fortunately, there are ways for institutions to get involved in changing the conversation around Indigenous histories. One such example is the land acknowledgment, a statement outlining the relationship an organization or community has with the land it sits on and the Indigenous people who lived, or still live, there. These are typically read aloud before public events as a way to recognize the true history of the land.

How does a statement that acknowledges my ancestors help me or my tribe today?

I have sometimes struggled with the concept and relevance of land acknowledgments. Sometimes I see them as a way for a person or a group to “check the box” of inclusion and move on without giving a second thought to Indigenous groups. How does a statement that merely acknowledges my ancestors help me or my tribe today?

However, I’m becoming more open to the concept. Land acknowledgments chip away at the dominant narrative of manifest destiny by stating the simple truth that Indigenous peoples lived in and stewarded the landscape, and continue to do so, since time immemorial. If done correctly, and regularly, maybe land acknowledgments can help correct two major stereotypes of American history: that Indigenous people are historical footnotes and that our communities are homogeneous.

Another reason I’ve become more open is that I am also starting to see the conservation field pursue and even embrace the historical truth about Indigenous history and knowledges. The North American landscape encountered by European colonists was not an ecological accident, but a vibrant and productive landscape stewarded by countless Indigenous communities for thousands of years. Recently, traditional knowledge is becoming integrated in contemporary settler practices. As one example, governments and land managers are increasingly using prescribed fires to restore ecosystems, following Indigenous people’s long-held knowledge that fire is central to maintaining high-quality forests and grasslands. However for decades and centuries before that, governments stifled this practice to the detriment of the land and people.

Conservationists are also recognizing that Indigenous stewardship better maintains biodiversity. Recent discoveries in the Pacific Northwest have identified that many of its highly diverse and resilient forests were planted and maintained by Indigenous people. This pattern holds globally: A 2008 World Bank report found that traditional Indigenous territories, which cover up to 22 percent of Earth’s land, coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.

Not all land acknowledgments are appropriate or effective, however. From my experience I have identified four elements necessary to demonstrate that an organization is serious about working with, and for, Indigenous communities:

  1. They are precise in their identification of communities that have a relationship with the specific land. Taking the time to identify the relevant communities counters the myth of monolothic Indigenous people. Admittedly, no list generated will ever be perfect, but care should be taken to identify major communities. One place to start is Native Land, a tool that uses your zip code to drill down into native territories, languages, and treaties. A good list also admits its limitations by stating that other unmentioned tribes may also have a connection to this land.
  2. They do not relegate communities to the past nor patronize them. Too often, language acknowledges tribes in the past tense when these communities are around today. I live in Chicago and am a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, yet I always find historical signs explaining how Miami people “used to live here.” Similarly, while Indigenous knowledge has been demeaned in the past, I occasionally find language praising Indigenous knowledge in a way that is just as dehumanizing, as if our knowledge is magically attuned to the natural world around us or that we live in perfect harmony with nature.
  3. They outline strategies for building and maintaining relationships with the tribes they’ve identified. Without this point, land acknowledgments are not being made for the sake of Indigenous people, but for the organization. Even if an organization has not built relationships prior to drafting a land acknowledgment, including reflections on how the organization plans to build such partnerships shows a sense of purpose and self-reflection important for the organization, its members, and the public they are engaging. Acknowledging Indigenous people is not a piece of trivia—it is a responsibility.
  4. They recognize the land itself, not just Indigenous people. This is, after all, a land acknowledgment. A relationship requires two active participants—in this instance, people and the land. Giving thanks and showing gratitude for the place we live opens up a new perspective. For birders, it isn’t just being thankful that a lifer appears in a local park, but also that the land can produce so much food and wonder when we work with it.           

Done well, the land acknowledgment becomes a living practice that can outline why and how an organization can be more inclusive of Indigenous communities. On a personal level, these reflections can bring to light the fact that people are not separate from nature, nor is the land they walk on separate from its history.